Definition: a delayed reaction to a surprising or significant situation after an initial failure to notice anything unusual—usually used in the phrase ‘do a double take’
Article by Diane Berkenfeld
Double Take (ISBN: 978-0-06-179153-6) published by Harper Studio, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is the memoir of Kevin Michael Connolly; a young man who, like many of us is different, although he’s spent his entire life the only way he knows how.
On a trip during his junior year of college, Kevin responded to being stared at by embracing the inevitable leers, answering back with his own—camera lens. Thus began a 17-country trek to find out if it truly was human nature—no matter the location or upbringing—to stare at that which we find different.
Thirty-two thousand plus images later, an exhibition, website, and memoir were born, along with answers to some burning questions: ‘What did those looks mean? What did they say about the other person, and how did that affect me? Kevin says: “I knew the basic answers: people stared because they were curious… But it felt like there was something deeper than that…”
In addition to those questions Kevin found that the experience was therapeutic. “Each photo was a miniature catharsis—only a fraction of a second that lasted about as long as the shutter speed on my camera.”
A daunting task made more so by the fact that Kevin Michael Connolly was born without legs.
In the book, Double Take, Kevin lets the reader in to his life, beginning at the time of his birth, through childhood and his many travels, especially those surrounding the impetus for the photo project that led to The Rolling Exhibition and Double Take.
Through poetic yet poignant words, Kevin tells the story of his growing up just like many other American kids, but with the added pressures and concerns of also growing up with a disability—not that it ever stopped Kevin from doing what he wanted. Kevin Michael Connolly rolls with the punches, and doesn’t let anything stop him from fulfilling his dreams and goals.
Although Kevin says in the book that he never started out with the intention of being an inspiration to others, once you read his words, you can’t help but feel that if he can do all of the things he’s accomplished in his life to date (he’s in his mid-twenties), you begin to think, ‘how could I let seemingly little things stop me.’ Visit his website and you’ll see first hand examples of Kevin’s infectious sense of humor and good nature.
At the beginning of each chapter of Double Take is an image from The Rolling Exhibition, a constant reminder of what Kevin experiences on a regular basis.
While a student at Montana State University, Kevin double majored in photography and film. “I think that while I enjoyed the collective energy and teamwork of working on a film, photography provided a nice counterbalance in that any project was undertaken alone. Company and compromise balanced by solitude and autonomy,” he explains.
While on a trip oversees, an experience in Vienna frustrated him to the point that he decided he would go out shooting the sights and not let it ruin the trip. Impulsively that afternoon Kevin captured the first image that led to the formation of his expansive photography project. It was when he reviewed his images later that evening that he saw the expression of a man who had done a ‘Double Take’ at Kevin. It had hinted at something larger. Kevin began shooting in earnest, and throughout his stay in Austria as well as the next two stops in Ireland and New York City—and 1,200 photographs later, the idea was firmly planted.
Initially using a Nikon D70s, Kevin gravitated to the Nikon D200 because of its added durability. You see Kevin isn’t comfortable using prosthesis or a wheelchair, he gets around via skateboard; so his camera, especially for The Rolling Exhibition project was being held just an inch or two off the ground. Lens of choice was an 18-200mm VR II Nikkor. “The only way in which I was able to shoot from the hip and reliably capture subjects was to memorize what one specific focal length would produce in any given situation. That said, everything in The Rolling Exhibition is shot on an 18mm focal length,” Kevin explains.
He explains in Double Take that he never looked in the direction the camera was pointing. “I’d wait for the feeling on the back of my neck, the one that lets you know someone’s staring, and I’d secretly fire off a shot from my hip.”
Most of the images were captured at ISO 320. “If I was shooting in an open area and there wasn’t too much contrast in light, I would usually trust the program mode. If I was shooting between buildings, at night, or in any situation with contrasty light—I’d go manual, though I’d never go wider than f/8, if I could avoid it,” Kevin explains.
Editing 32,000+ images down to only 48 seems like it would be a time consuming task to undertake. But, “the editing process was pretty fluid throughout the shoot,” says Kevin. “Because of the nature in which I shot the series (never looking through the viewfinder, shooting from the hip, never stopping the skateboard, etc.), I had a fair [amount] of technical mistakes—especially early in the trip. Most evenings after I’d finished shooting, I would trash some of the shots that were obviously useless—whether it was poor framing, exposure, or whatever,” he explains.
”By the time I arrived home, I had parsed it down to 20,000 or so and after that it became a matter of each photo matching some specific criteria. I made four passes through the set of images, and each time I added another criteria,” he notes. “My ultimate goal was to create a photo series that accurately represented my thesis—which was that everyone stares. So representing men, women, kids, and countries evenly was a high priority. Once that was achieved, I began to focus on making the series aesthetically beautiful. To be honest, I feel as if I could have gone smaller on the final number, but forty-eight allows me a lot of options when it comes to mixing and matching images in different galleries around the world,” he adds.
Initially deleting unwanted photos and working on a PC was Kevin’s workflow. Nowadays he uses a mixture of Adobe Photoshop CS4, DxO Optics and Adobe Lightroom on a Mac, depending upon where the photos will be used. “Thankfully the only work I had to do on a couple of [The Rolling Exhibition] images was some mild-dust removal, which kept the post-process from being too time consuming,” he says.
Kevin had intended for The Rolling Exhibition project to be turned into a photo book, but was convinced to write a memoir instead. “It was only after I had gone through a fair number of meetings that I met the folks at HarperStudio—who really convinced me that I had more to say than what could be fit into photo captions. For that I’m still thanking them. I think that someday down the road—maybe in a year or two, there will be a photo book popping up,” Kevin says. As to whether he would add to the original forty-eight photographs, Kevin says it might be a possibility.
One of the concerns Kevin had about the project was that he had been photographing strangers in countries around the world and not alerting his subjects to that fact, hence no model releases. But as it turns out, it was a non-issue. “There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do with the photographs—such as licensing—but I never planned on that anyway,” he adds.
Kevin is an avid traveler, so the question comes up as to whether he will continue shooting images for the project. “It’s certainly a possibility that I’ll add to the project, though I don’t think it will ever be totally overhauled,” he says. “I think that the aesthetic look of the photo series was so specific that it could be stagnating to keep shooting in such a fashion.” He adds: “I think that I’ll always shoot from a low angle [chuckles] and that I’ll always stray toward portraiture, but I don’t think it will always revolve around being stared at.”
Q. What types of photography are you into shooting?
A. I think I’ll always gravitate toward the stuff that requires some sort of adventure to undertake. I work the best when I’m in a situation that forces me to think “on my feet”, so to speak. Traveling on a skateboard fulfills that need pretty well, and allows me to cover a lot of ground at low angle in a very interesting way. So with that in mind—and if I was a betting man—I’d say that my photo projects will probably gravitate toward “survey portraiture” for the next project or two.
Q. Are there any other photo projects on the horizon that you want to talk about?
A. I do have something that I’ve been working on for the past few months. I’m still in research mode, but I’ll tell you that the photos will be framed more deliberately than last time. This one will also have a bit of sci-fi/Robocop vibe (though no Photoshop!), but that’s all I should probably say…
Q. How much photography vs. film do you want to do?
A. I think that writing and photography will probably be my focus for some time to come as far as new projects go. I still really enjoy the autonomy offered by that form of work. That said, there is a film project in the works.
Q. Who are your favorite photographers?
A. Robert Frank really resonates with me. I was thinking about his work on the Americans series quite a lot while I was shooting my own project. The number of images, distances traveled, and the survey-like nature of The Rolling Exhibition all drew parallels to Frank’s series in some way. Other than that—I really enjoy James Nachtwey’s work—though in some ways more for its process than end product. After seeing the documentary War Photographer, which is a portrait of Nachtwey and his craft, I was completely inspired. Not inspired to go to the places that he’s been to necessarily, but by the way he was able to move through incredibly tense situations with a very deliberate calm while still taking photos. Not many people have the resilience or fortitude to create anything—much less art—in the places that he does.
X Games Athlete
In addition to all of his traveling, photography and film interests, Kevin Michael Connolly is also an X Games athlete competing in Mono skier Cross.
Kevin began skiing as a youth, competing regularly until he was 18. Once he started college, his classes and other activities kept Kevin pretty busy. His only competitions over the past few years has been at the annual X Games.
He begins gear preparation at the end of the summer, and starts hitting the mountains by mid-December. Training these days is done with the local college and youth racing teams; as well as a private practice jump that Big Sky Resort generously built for Kevin. “The thing could throw you about 50 or 60 feet, and was a good tool for teaching you how to stay calm in the air. Pretty much the entirety of January is spent on the hill.”
“Between the demands of the book, photo assignments, and skiing—things need to be juggled pretty deftly,” Kevin explains. “Usually I try to keep each part of my life as separate as possible so that I can focus on one thing at a time. When I go out to shoot, I want to be excited about it. I don’t want to be thinking about skiing or writing, because it’ll keep me from focusing on the task at hand. Generally, I would say that my ski season is shorter and more compressed than most in order to deal with other work when I’m not involved in X Games.”
To check out The Rolling Exhibition website, go to the website at www.therollingexhibition.com.
To see more of Kevin’s photography, go to his website at www.kevinmichaelconnolly.com.
Click here to read more about Kevin’s X Games experiences as a Mono ski Cross racer on the Harper Studio website.